Oscar-tipped ‘Leviathan’ gets major release in Russia defying criticism
Russia's Oscar-tipped "Leviathan" received a belated release at home on Thursday, showing on hundreds of screens in a censored version following harsh criticism from officials and Orthodox clerics.
Andrei Zvyagintsev’s bleak social drama, widely predicted to win best foreign-language film at this month’s Oscars, was released on 650 screens across Russia, several months after it came out in the West.
The film — seen in the West as a searing critique of Vladimir Putin’s Russia — was set for release in November but delayed due to a new law banning swearing in cinemas that forced changes to its expletive-littered dialogue.
In Russia, the movie, which is banned for anyone under 18, is being shown with all the swear words cut from the soundtrack without beeps. The characters silently mouth the offending words instead.
Despite its Oscar hopes and last month winning Russia’s first Golden Globe since the 1960s, the film has faced accusations it is “anti-Russian” and slanted in order to win Western prizes.
Outspoken culture minister Vladimir Medinsky — whose ministry partly funded the film — complained of its “existential hopelessness” and lack of “positive hero.”
Orthodox Church spokesman Vsevolod Chaplin slammed the film as “pessimistic” and “anti-Christian.”
Director Zvyagintsev defended his work, saying he simply wanted to tell the truth about Russia.
“This is no hyperbole, it’s a reflection of what is happening in the country,” the softly-spoken 50-year-old director told AFP.
“You cannot but react to what is going on and respond, without worrying about the consequences for yourself.”
The Siberian-born director’s haunting debut film “The Return” won the top prize at Venice Film Festival in 2003. He followed this with “The Banishment”, which won best actor at Cannes.
Producer Alexander Rodnyansky admitted the heated debate over Leviathan had “attracted far more cinemas… than we expected”. Its release is comparable to that for a mainstream commercial movie.
“The film has taken on a life that maybe we haven’t dreamt of since the Perestroika era,” he said, referring to the Soviet period when cinema began to freely show social problems and sex.
The sweeping drama set in a desolate northern town tells the story of a mechanic, played by Alexei Serebryakov, who wages a legal battle with the grossly corrupt local mayor to save his family house.
It shows the authorities loyal to Putin hand-in-glove with police and courts, while Russian Orthodox clerics turn a blind eye to official wrongdoing.
The film “has been discussed even by those who haven’t watched it and don’t plan to,” wrote Vedomosti business daily.
Afisha listings magazine called it “the biggest Russian film of the decade… discussed for a whole month by everyone, from ministers to angry milkmaids.”
‘Hitting right in the heart’
The film was leaked online and the makers estimated it had been watched by up to six million people ahead of its Russian release.
Rodnyansky said the director was initially “in a rage” about the leak, but after seeing the huge interest, the makers changed their minds.
“I have the feeling that the film hit right in the bullseye, right in the heart, exactly where we wanted… It seems to me that this film is simply necessary now,” Zvyagintsev said recently.
Russian film critics have given the film a mixed reception.
“Leviathan is totally ordinary… an average-quality festival film,” Lydia Maslova wrote in the Kommersant business daily. “You get bored quite quickly from the direct way (Zvyagintsev) says obvious things.”
But writing in the same paper, critic Anton Dolin said: “You cannot love Leviathan, you can hate it… But it’s a whole lot harder not to respect it.”